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Roundtable: arming the Syrian rebels

My FP column last week argued that the Obama administration was correct to reject plans to arm the Syrian opposition. The objections to arming have become weaker as the conflict has become fully militarized, I argued, but the upside to arming has not become substantially higher. My column tomorrow will feature the second half of my current take on Syria, with a set of alternative policy recommendations drawn from my forthcoming CNAS Policy Brief. Stay tuned for that tomorrow! 

Today I am happy to be able to feature three interesting and important responses to my column. This is part of my ongoing effort to promote serious, critical debate and discussion on these issues (for previous episodes, see the Egypt policy challenge responses and the Twitter Devolutions responses). Today's roundtable features Daniel Byman (Georgetown and Brookings), Emile Hokayem (International Institute for Strategic Studies), and Mona Yacoubian (Stimson Center). I am also going to quote from a piece by Karl Sharro that touched on similar themes. I regret that several others whom I invited didn't have time to contribute to the roundtable, but I look forward to hearing their thoughts in other venues. 

Daniel Byman (Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and research director of the Saban Center at Brookings).

I've long championed aiding the Syrian opposition and warned that Assad might not fall unless pushed. Yet as Marc Lynch has contended in his columns (and many other skeptics in and out of government would agree) aiding the opposition is risky. Even if done well it could easily fail, and the United States might feel obliged to further escalate and deploy its own troops, which would be a mistake. Although the Obama administration appeared to consider and reject supporting the opposition last year, again the option is bruited about as U.S. policy toward Syria continues to flounder. 

With a large and sustained program to arm (and particularly train) the opposition, the United States can shape it, enabling more moderate forces to gain strength vis-à-vis radical rivals and prove themselves on the battlefield. A more effective and moderate opposition increases the chance that Assad will fall and, just as important, that a post-Assad Syria will avoid being a failed state. Coordinating U.S. efforts with those of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other regional allies would increase our chances of success.

However, a sense of realism is necessary. We are years late to the game, and the opposition is painfully fractious -- while radicals are more and more entrenched. Iran has gone all-in to support Assad, and he shows no sign of giving in. In the past, some of the insurgents backed by the United States remained inept and, even more jarring, ungrateful for U.S. support after the conflict ended.

Yet the other possible policies are off the table or even more risky. The United States is not about to intervene with its own troops, and diplomatic solutions have failed again and again. Beyond the increasingly horrific body count and refugee flows, ignoring the conflict is also risky, as violence from Syria is spilling over into neighboring states and risks destabilizing the region as a whole. So aiding the opposition ends up being the best -- or really the least worst -- option.

 

Emile Hokayem, International Institute for Strategic Studies

Thanks for the opportunity to engage in the debate. You make an articulate but ultimately unconvincing argument in favor of withholding any kind of military help to the Syrian rebels. 

First, let's dispense with a few matters. I don't argue my case from the perspective of U.S. interests -- I am not an American citizen, so I factor U.S. interests only as part of a broader mix of considerations.

Very few people who support the arming of the rebels make the case for a direct military intervention. Intervention has become a catch-all word to dismiss advocates for more limited action as unreformed hawks (many among us opposed the Iraq war and agree that intervention should be the rarest of exceptions). I too question the wisdom and merits of a direct intervention (including a no-fly zone and a safe zone) in current circumstances. Given the very complex Syrian terrain, the risks and costs are likely to be enormous. A direct intervention may be needed in the extreme cases of WMD use or if genocide, contingencies that military planners would do well to consider.

Second, I accept that some types of weaponry, including anti-aircraft missiles are too sensitive to be introduced. I actually find it unfair that the U.S. is singled out for its opposition to the delivery of such weapons to the rebels when other countries, including Turkey, have done so for fear they would reach jihadi or Turkish separatist groups.

The case against arming the rebels is often followed by a plea for renewed, creative diplomacy, which often would somehow be undermined by supplying weapons. First, diplomacy is in a comatose state and, as I argued in Foreign Policy, Assad will have none of it beyond theatrics. Second, why should diplomacy and strengthening the rebels be mutually exclusive and decoupled? History is rife of examples of both strategies being deployed in parallel. After all, NATO had to help the Croats and the Bosnians ahead of the Dayton talks, which often cited as a possible template for Syria.

With a death toll on par with the worst months of the Iraq war, the argument that "more guns will lead to more violence" is the weakest one in the debate. And the question is not the quantity of weapons but its distribution among the various groups. Assad not only has better weapons in greater quantity, he also has access to re-supply from Iran and Russia and a local defense industry. Also, one doesn't have to be a scholar of just war theory to know that not all violence is the same. 

The case for arming the rebels has evolved over time. At first, arming (with or without a no-fly zone) was supposed to convey a sense of Western commitment to the downfall of Assad that would send a decisive message to key players in the military and the regime, thus encouraging defections.

Then, it became about giving the rebels a military edge, but I think the military rationale is overstated. It is simply too late to organize and equip the rebels in a manner that would quickly bring down the regime while preserving the state for a smooth transition (I also accept that this goal was probably unrealistic, but perhaps less so than the U.S. administration's continued attachment to a peaceful transition that would follow a political solution). That initial goal has crumbled: The regime is holding on while the state is essentially gone. Forget those ridiculous headlines about Assad and his lieutenants being in a state of panic -- the regime can still allocate military resources in a rational manner and can put up a fight where it needs to.

The Syrian rebels have never been given a reason to coalesce and the dithering has made things worse. Some analysts will argue, based on historical precedent, that they would never have, but this has to be tried. Analysts will say the U.S. has constantly failed at picking winners, but that's the wrong expectation. Many of those who argue against arming pretend that their opponents in that debate are promising the moon in return for weapons. I am not. The U.S. will in no case pick the winning party in Syria; the question is whether whoever fights now or wins later will even care to listen to the U.S. or any other Western state.

In the very unlikely event Russia and the U.S. agree on Syria, both will likely have zero leverage to translate this into a regional and Syrian political solution. The political leaders the U.S. supports today will be powerless to negotiate, let alone enforce anything because they couldn't deliver in time of need. It may well be impossible to contain the worst instincts of warlords and military leaders who, having seized power through blood and force, will be reluctant to abide by the rules of politics.

In the not-so-distant future, jihadi groups may well roam on the borders with Israel, Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, and do nasty things. The U.S. may then feel compelled to send its drones to take them out because it will not have local partners to turn to for help. The narrative that day will be that the U.S. couldn't be bothered to meaningfully help the revolutionaries against Assad but doesn't bother to go after those who did. It will be an imperfect and unfair narrative, but it will resonate across the region.

By waiting for so long before engaging the Syrian rebels in a meaningful manner, the Western states (now that the EU has renewed its arms embargo) have made themselves at best marginal to the dynamics of a conflict that has already overtaken Iraq's in regional and strategic terms and will shape the future of the Levant. Every other state is developing proxies and allies.

Let me end with this: Let's assume that you are indeed right that the course chosen by the Obama administration is the best. I hope you will agree that even this policy is under resourced, badly implemented, and awfully communicated, and that it likely won't have any significant, let alone decisive impact inside Syria.

 

Mona Yacoubian, Stimson Center

Arming the Syrian opposition remains a bad idea. If anything, Syria's chaotic evolution toward sectarian civil war vindicates the Obama administration's caution on the question. The potential is great for unintended consequences:  Arms may fall into the wrong hands, and the United States could get sucked into a long, nasty proxy war that foments spillover across the region. Lessons not only from Afghanistan, but also Libya (from Benghazi to Mali), highlight the deadly pitfalls of funneling arms into conflict. That such an inherently volatile and complicated process can be successfully "managed" requires a significant leap of faith.

Beyond that, the negative repercussions would be significant should the United States essentially become a partisan in an evolving sectarian civil war. In the region, the United States is already perceived as favoring Sunni (and in some cases Islamist) interests as in Bahrain or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Rather than an "above the fray" superpower seeking a negotiated outcome that ushers in a post-Assad Syria, the United States would be viewed by many as simply a partisan player in a Sunni-Alawite civil war. Its ability to help promote the emergence of a multi-sectarian, democratic Syria would diminish significantly.  Indeed, U.S. interests in a post-Assad Syria must rise above sectarian agendas. 

Moreover, greater U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war would also open the United States up to greater security threats in the region and beyond (remember Lebanon). US arming of Sunni armed groups in Syria could provoke Hezbollah, Iran, or others to launch attacks on U.S. targets. The United States should avoid being implicated more directly in the destabilizing Sunni-Shiite conflict that is expanding across the region. 

Three critical factors have remained constant since the beginning of Syria's uprising and are responsible for its downward spiral from peaceful protests to sectarian civil war: 

1) The regime's perception of any protest (peaceful or otherwise) as an existential threat and therefore its unwillingness to reform or negotiate. Instead, Assad and those around him are engaged in a fight to the death; there is no "Yemen solution" to Syria.

2) The opposition's  inability to overcome ethno-sectarian divisions and unite around a vision of post-Assad Syria which would provide solid guarantees (not just assurances) to Syria's minority communities, especially Alawites, Christians, and Kurds.

3) The international community's enduring stalemate, marked by an inability to forge a consensus on Syria that has rendered the UN ineffective and dramatically minimized the prospects for successful diplomacy.

The only way to cease Syria's continuing downward spiral would be to reverse at least two of these three factors. U.S. arming of the opposition would have the opposite effect.  It would further polarize the international community, pushing Russia (and of course Iran) further into the regime's corner. Moreover, U.S. arming of the opposition would do nothing to alleviate minorities' deepening concerns that there is no place for them in a post-Assad Syria. In short, U.S. arming (direct or indirect) can do greater damage than good -- distancing the prospects the Syrian conflict's  resolution and embedding the United States into a dangerous sectarian dynamic that is spreading across the Middle East.

Karl Sharro, "The Myth of Constructive Meddling"

[This is excerpted from a blog post, which you should be sure to read in its entirety.]

...The underlying assumption among analysts is that the U.S., and the West more broadly, should adopt a "sticks and carrots" approach to encourage the armed rebel groups to fall in line with the political opposition and isolate the more radical elements thus weakening their influence.

Those calls are voiced by analysts that have demonstrated that they really understand the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, particularly in terms of the military, geo-strategic and logistical aspects. The option appears seductive because it appears as a logical extension of this body of knowledge and the analysis built on top it. It is nevertheless a delusion. At the heart of this is characteristic arrogance that assumes that favourable outcomes could be orchestrated through a calibrated policy of political, financial and military support.

....the emerging policy option suggests arming and supporting the more moderate elements. The mistake here is assuming that weapons and financial support can compensate for lack of or weak popular support. Furthermore, it totally ignores the way in which Jabhat al-Nusra and the multitude of Islamist brigades and groups will be able to use that to galvanise further support, as Hezbollah has done successfully in the past by seizing on evidence of external support for its opponents.

.... The ‘arming the moderates' option is an exercise in abstract political logic that is entirely oblivious to the fast-changing social and political dynamics in Syria. The military and strategic snapshot it relies on provides only half of the picture....

ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images

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